Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog.
Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?
“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…
brand copywriter, campervan luster-afterer, middle child, cheese chomper, writer of short things and all-round nosy bastard, Melllll Barfielllllld!
Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…
Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)
4,000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. It’s not exactly a business book, but it’s been massively useful. It’s all about time and how to use it. It’s helped me let go of all the things fantasy me could do and focus instead on what actual me can realistically achieve. Sounds depressing but it’s liberating.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
As a child I loved ads with a physical movement; the stuff that gets repeated in the playground like the Tango slap or Mr Soft’s wobbly walk. It’s nice to see McDonalds get in on it with their bowm bowm eyebrows.
I don’t have a favourite campaign (*racks brain*) but I adore a jingle. More brands should use them. I was singing “woaaahhhh Bodyfooo-horrrm” in the kitchen the other day. That ad’s about 30 years old. Special mention to Barry Scott, for making the Cillit Bang remix possible.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
Don’t overthink the first draft. I write brain-to-fingers with no filter and then tidy up later. If I try and self-edit as I go, it ends up stale. Not sure I have a book in me, though. Maybe a children’s book? They’re nice and short.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
Binge watch Emma Cownley’s YouTube channel. And I’d tell newbie me to hurry up and post regularly on LinkedIn. I know people hate it, but it gives such great return on effort. You just have to say f*ck it and lean into the cringe.
D&AD’s The Copy Book
Building A Storybrand by Donald Miller
Copywriting Made Simple by Tom Albrighton
Dan Nelken’s A Self-Help Guide for Copywriters
I changed the book list order, so it looks prettier. LinkedIn bro style.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
I put on this YouTube playlist by pianist Luke Faulkner when I’m writing. I’ve conditioned myself so when it comes on my brain goes “OH! WORK MODE!”. The lilting simplicity (just piano, or piano plus cello) helps me find rhythm in my writing. I can’t write listening to anything with lyrics though, so it’s Luke (+headphones) or silence.
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
I read for escapism, so you won’t find me ploughing through Tolstoy to look clever. But I forget most books immediately. I’m the same with films. Here’s what I loved enough to remember…
Almost everything by Roald Dahl
I’m a basic bitch; I love The Beatles, Marks & Spencer, and Roald Dahl. As a child I couldn’t sleep without a Roald Dahl audiobook. I’m reading him to my 9-year-old; trying to tear her away from her beloved Jacqueline Wilson.
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith
McColl Smith is like Dahl; no word wasted. The books are set in Botswana. Mum’s from neighbouring South Africa and I’ve visited a few times, so I can picture the landscapes vividly.
The Langoliers by Stephen King
My favourite King creepy. The increasing sense of despair is harrowing. I need to get Stephen King’s book, On Writing. I’ve heard great things.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
It was the first homework I was set on UAL’s Confident Copywriting course. Classic copy task; write a headline in the style of an Economist ad. After much brain squeezing, I birthed:
I was so proud. It helped give me the confidence to leave my job. Unfortunately, my frenemy Dan Nelken (*shakes fist*) informed me it already ran years ago. Bittersweet. I can’t lay claim to it, but my brain thought of something good enough to run.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
A tankini. With shorts on the bottom for minimal bikini line maintenance.
Who was your teenage crush?
Leonardo DiCaprio. I had Titanic and Romeo & Juliet posters on my wall. Unfortunately, I aged out of his dating pool in 2009. I loved Damon Albarn too, but he’s also turned out a little problematic.
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Fog Harbor Fish House on Pier 39 in San Francisco, on our honeymoon. I had clam chowder (“chowdah!”) served in a sourdough bread bowl. It was in 2012 and I’ve thought about it at least once a week since.
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
Prosecco, but I decided to give up booze for the year leading up to my 40th (next April). So for now, Appletiser.
If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?
Costa Rica. We tried to book it for our honeymoon, but the site kept crashing so we did a US road trip instead. It’s where pro digi nomad writer Rachael Pilcher said she’d stay forever if she had to pick somewhere. The writing part would be interviewing Sir David for a Freelancer Magazine article. I don’t think he’s technically a freelancer, but I reckon our editor Soph would let it slide.
What’s in your pockets?
A hairband, a school reply slip I forgot to hand in, and a dog poo bag. Always a dog poo bag.
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
My beloved clickedy clackedy keyboard. Love that guy. If I’m on a naming project, it’s pen/pencil and paper to begin with as I gather and grow my word web/bank of ideas. I recently bought some yellow legal pads and the exact pencils Roald Dahl used. Nerd.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)
The Writing Desk, obvs. So many freelance friends have newsletters and blogs, so I’ll only mention a few. Ange Lyons’ Font Love Friday, Jodie Newman’s Business Allotment, Becca Magnus’ Out There (culture, brand, strategy), Nick Parker’s Tone Knob, Felicity Wild’s Brand Voice Notes, Jonathan Wilcock’s entire website. Nikki Pilkington and Alice Rowan both write about SEO in a way even I understand. Andi Best isn’t a writer but writes like one. My newest fave is Molly Scanlan’s newsletter. It’s so wonderfully short. Are you even a writer if you don’t get Harland in your inbox? And I just started my own substack (Nosy Bastard News), as if people don’t already have enough digital clutter.
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
A large strong coffee with lots of oatly barista oat milk. But only one or two before switching to decaf, or I won’t sleep.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
It’s a stainless steel Le Creuset travel cup with an orange lid. My brother gave it to me. It keeps my huge coffee warm, and it has a firm-shut lid so I can pop it in my pocket on the school run.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
I know Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet & Allan Ahlberg by heart. I’ve read it to my girls so many times. Best character is Danny’s Dad from Danny the Champion of the World.
Your favourite word?
Blancmange. Sounds so gloopy yet extravagant.
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say, “Ew!”?)
I don’t really have one. Can I pick a phrase instead? “It is what it is”.
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
Ideally? In the aisles, child-free, with nowhere else to be. Realistically? Online, looking for a book on writing someone’s recommended on LinkedIn/Twitter. The to-read list grows daily.
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
Eminem – “Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records.
Well, I do. So f*ck him and f*ck you too.”
And pretty much every word in Hamilton. Lin Manuel Miranda is a genius.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
David Bowie, especially Modern Love. When that guitar intro hits. YES!
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
It’s not especially strange, but I go to Bonnie Harrington’s Tomato Tuesdays, Freelancer Magazine’s Wednesday co-work and the Being Freelance co-work on Fridays. All sessions have shortish (25-45min) “Pomodoro” bursts of work where you only focus on one thing, with breaks between. I need other people for accountability though; doesn’t work when I’m on my own.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
A tone of voice guide for an ace creative biz, an About Us page subcontracted to me by another copywriter and some questions to write for Freelancer Magazine interviews. I’m off to the Food & Drink Expo at Birmingham NEC to try and schmooze my dream clients (I heart cheese). I also need to finish and finesse my talk for Nottingham Digital Summit.
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
A tree, taken this morning. I take one a week so I can make a gif/video of it changing through the year. On the walk to school, I get my girls to stop, take a deep breath and look at this one tree. I suck at mindfulness, so I’m trying to build it into their daily lives.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
Andrew Boulton gave a great talk at CopyCon, about the importance of being idle. I now book in buffer time to allow for rest periods, to let ideas percolate and to give myself a break when things get heavy. What we do is taxing on our brains, so we need to be kind to ourselves.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
I’ve started writing poems/lyrics. One of many excellent pieces of advice I got from Becca Magnus during a strategy power hour was to create for myself. It’s so deeply cringe though.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
“I apologise for such a long letter – I didn’t have time to write a short one” – attributed to Mark Twain, among others. I have it on my website because it sums up how short copy can take as much/more time and brain power as long-form.
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
Don Draper, for the scene where his underling says, “I feel bad for you.” and Don replies, “I don’t think about you at all.”
I need to channel Don’s brutal indifference.
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (director’s cuts). They were so different to most films I’d seen, and they opened the world of D&D for me. After a 15-year hiatus, I recently tried D&D again, thanks to some other lovely freelancers who held my hand.
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
4,000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman – I’m rereading it with the audiobook alongside. My friend gave me Where the Crawdads Sing, so I’m dipping in and out of that too.
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
Mr. Philips was an incredible GCSE English teacher (two As, just sayin). I was gutted he left before my A-Levels. But hey, I got around to writing for a living eventually. I’m super self-motivated when it comes to my career, so maybe… I am my greatest teacher 😎 I’m probably meant to say “my children” but that sounds too wanky.
Who is your favoUrite artist?
Mr. Bingo. I’ve forgiven him for the fact Bonnie and I almost died in his lift. He’s a lovely man with an ace attitude. I’ve got so many Bingos my office is like a shrine to him. In totally unrelated news, he recently packed up and left the country.
Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?
My home office is my happy little hovel. I’ve got my children’s art and ‘proper’ art on the walls, and as many plants as I can keep alive at once. Just ignore the mismatched frames, please.